Noam Chomsky – The biolinguistic turn lecture notes – part two

Assuming that, I turn to some things that ought be obvious. It can scarcely be denied that some internal state is responsible for the fact that I speak and understand some variety of whats loosly called english but not say, hindi or korean. To borrow and in fact adapt a traditional term we can call this state, wherever it is, thats internal to me a state of the human faculty of language, primarily a state of the brain. We can call each such state an internalized language in technical literatur often called an I language. For simplicity I call it that. It should also be uncontroversial that the faculty of language has an initial state, part of our biological endownment, which permits a certain range of options – the attainable I languages.

The faculty of language then is a special property that enables my granddaughter but not her pet kitten or chimpanzee to attain a specific I language on exposure to appropriate data, data which her mind in some obscure way is able to extract from the glooming buzzing confusion and interpret as linguistic experience. That is no slight task. Nobody knows how its done, but it obviously is. More accurately every infant acquires a complex of such states, thats a complication error, but I put that aside. The expectation that language is like everything else in the organic world and therfor is based on a genetically determined initial state that distinguishes, say my granddaughter from my pets. That assumption has been called the innateness hypothesis. There is a substantial literature debating the validity of the innateness hypothesis. The literatur has a curious character. There are lots of condemnations of the hypothesis but its never formulated. And nobody defends it. Its alleged advocates, of whom I am one, have no idea what the hypothesis is. Everyone has some innateness hypothesis concerning language, at least everyone who is interested in the difference between an infant and say her pets.

Furthermore the invented term -innateness hypotheses- is completely meaningless. There is no specific innateness hypothesis rather there are various hypothesis about what might be the initial genetically determined state. These hypothesis are of course constantly changing as more is learned. That all should be obvious. Confusion about this matters has reached such extreme levels that it is becoming hard even to unravel, but I put this aside.

The biolinguistic approach takes mental faculties to be states of the organisms. In particular internal languages (I languges) are states of the faculty of language. I focus on language but most of what follows should hold as well for other cognitive faculties and in fact for far simpler organisms (bee communication or navigation). Well, when we adopt this approach several questions arise at once.

The central one is to determin the nature of the initial and attained states. And tho the matter appears to be controversal I know of no serious alternative to the thesis that these are in substantial measure computational states wether we have in mind insect navigation or what you and I are doing right now. Again, thats held to be controversal but since there is no alternative ideas I dont understand why. Its held to be controversal for humans. Its not held to be controversal for say insect navigation but the question is about the same.

Investigation of the brain in these terms is sometimes called psychological and its contrasted with investigation in terms of cells, chemical processes, electrical activity and so on that is called physiological. These are again terms of convenience, they dont have any sharp boundaries. Chemistry and Physics where distinguished in pretty much the similar way not very long ago. The formular involving complex molecules that we now study in school. These where pretty recently considered to be “merely classificatory symbols that summaries the observed course of the reaction. The ultimate nature of the molecular groupings was held to be unsolvable and the actual arrangements within a molecule, if this means anything, was never to be read into the formular”.

Kekulé whos structural chemistry paved the way to eventual unification of chemistry and physics. He doubted that absolute constitution of organic molecules could ever be given. His own models, his analysis of valency and so on where to have only an instrumental interpretation as calculating devices. Large parts of physics where understood in the same way by prominent scientists including the Molecular theory of gases, even Bohr’s modell of the atom. In fact, only a few years before physics and chemistry where united in Linus Pauling account on the chemical bond, Americas first nobel price winning chemist dismissed talk about the real nature of chemical bond as in his therms “metaphysical twaddle, this was nothing more than a very crueld method of representing certain known facts about chemical reactions, a mode of representation only” just a calculating device. The rejection of this skepticism by a few leading scientists, whos views where incidentally condemned as a conceptual absurdity, paved the way to the eventual unification.

This very recent debates, talking about the 1920s’ in the hard sciences, I think have considerable relevance for todays controversies in computational theories of cognitive capacity – thats from insects to humans. Important topic, one that I discussed little bit elsewhere, that deserves more attention than it recieves.

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Filed under The Biolinguistic turn - Noam Chomsky

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